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The Most Effective Jump Scares in the Movies
Horror movies can be the best kind of adrenaline rush. They provide a kind of thrill that keeps the viewer safe while allowing them to experience part of the emotional rollercoaster that they follow with the heroes and/or victims of the movie. One of my favorite aspects of horror is the jump scare. The tense up and then release of a moment can be both thrilling and cathartic. Below I discuss some of my favorite jump scare moments in movie history.
The Classic Scare
Since the silent movie era, filmmakers have been shocking audiences with sudden, startling moments. There’s a famous story about people fainting upon seeing the Phantom of the Opera’s face revealed for the first time. It’s hard to imagine how unprepared these people could be for movie makeup. Such an image could be shown to a modern-day small child, and they probably wouldn’t even bat an eye. We hang his face up on our walls for Halloween and don’t think twice about it affecting the neighbors or trick-or-treaters. Horror has since evolved, but unexpected images still continue to stun us.
The Suspense Scare
It’s not just strictly horror that can cause a great jump scare. Probably the best non-horror jump scare can be found in the climax of Wait Until Dark when Audrey Hepburn’s blind character is suddenly attacked by Alan Arkin’s home invader who seems to jump out of the corner of the screen and leap in a way that you were not expecting, especially from a film that, up until that point, has been primarily psychologically driven. They got me good there.
The Kiddie Scare
The jump scare is not easy or even recommended in a kid’s movie. I remember almost being forced to leave the theater at the beginning of the movie Casper because my little sister couldn’t handle the ghostly trio popping up behind Dr. Harvey and shouting at him with bloody eyes and teeth. I have to admit, I looked away myself. But, you can pull it off if you do it right. Another scare that comes to mind is in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. When Elizabeth discovers the pirates in their skeleton form for the first time, she tries to hide behind a flight of stairs only to have the skeleton monkey jump down next to her. On first viewing, if you have the volume high enough, it can startle you. Because it’s a monkey and not an axe murderer or ghost,, though, it's easy to get over and laugh about.
Another movie that comes to mind, while for a more mature child audience, is the first Jurassic Park film. I was left in shock during the first T-Rex sequence when the kids are trying to turn off the flashlight, attracting the dinosaur to the glass roof where she suddenly breaks through with her snout, leaving just a thick piece of glass between her six inch teeth and the kids’ vulnerable bodies. I’d never seen kids come so close to a gory death in a movie, and your first time seeing a particular shocking image can aid in the jump scare that's taking place.
The Perception Scare
Sometimes a sequence can happen so fast that you don’t realize what is happening, and it can make you feel that something has happened that hasn’t. You find yourself jumping, but you don’t know why. This happened to me during my first viewing of Signs.
When Graham (played by Mel Gibson) confronts one of the aliens for the first time behind a pantry door, his curiosity gets the better of him, and he decides to use a kitchen knife to view of the creature from beneath the door. In response, the alien reaches out toward him with its sharp-nailed hand, creating a quick scramble that results in Graham chopping off the alien’s fingers. This all happened so fast, and both beings let out such a loud scream, that I interpreted that it was Graham’s fingers that were cut off. You really don’t want your hero to lose any body parts over the course of a movie, and I thought things had just taken a turn for the worse. What I thought was another M. Night Shymalan twist was really just my eyes playing tricks on me, and I nearly made my living room walls shake with my reaction.
The Slow But Effective Jump Scare
A jump scare doesn’t have to be split second quick to be effective. Sometimes it just needs to come at an unexpected time. Two movies that come to mind are the first Friday the 13th and Carrie. To begin with, Friday the 13th’s kills mostly take place from the killer’s perspective. Once the killer is revealed and then taken out, we think the danger is over. So, when lone-survivor Alice floats away on a boat in the lake, we think we’re just going to see her glide to safety or at least to the closing credits. So, when Jason, a character who has only been mentioned but never seen up to this point, suddenly pops out of the water in slow motion, all bloated and rotted, you can’t believe your eyes. This was one scare that literally made me jump out of my seat, a reaction that I haven’t experienced before or since.
The Carrie scare is probably one of the most famous in movie history. In a slow motion dream sequence, a numb and guilty Sue Snell walks up to the rubble of Carrie White’s home to place a bouquet of flowers on what is essentially her grave. This slow, gentle scene is suddenly disrupted by the bloodied hand of the prom queen reaching up and grabbing Sue’s arm as if to pull her down with her.
If you notice, Carrie’s hand reaches up at Sue’s with a less abrupt speed than is usually effective for a jump scare. But, the shift to a chilling music cue along with Sue’s blood curdling scream and Carrie’s gory arm pull it together so nicely that the jump scare rush lingers for a bit as Sue’s dream bleeds right into reality with her mom holding her in the same place as dream Carrie’s as she attempts to calm her down before the credits roll.
The Funny Jump Scare
When a film scares you just to get a laugh, you feel like the victim of a practical joke, feeling foolish and even angry before you laugh it away. The Scream movies do a great job of this. One scene that comes to mind is after Sidney's first encounter with the killer. After her boyfriend, Billy, comes through her bedroom window to comfort her, essentially "scaring" the killer away, Sidney is taken aback has his cell phone falls to the floor, prompting enough suspicion to make her turn and run from him as well. When she opens her front door, she comes face to face with the mask worn by the killer who has just terrorized her, though it is now being held by an equally traumatized Deputy Dewey, there to answer the call for help. The franchise is littered with these jump scare gags as it attempts to incorporate humor throughout its otherwise serious story while still delivering the scares that horror audiences crave.
The Final Scare
Sometimes horror movies just like to go out big. It can help keep the movie with you after the lights come on. It can also provide the biggest scare of the movie in some instances. While I Know What You Did Last Summer is no gem, I have to say, the final scene is very effective. The ending shot features the killer popping through the glass of a full length mirror at Julie, just when you thought she was home free. In a movie that didn’t pack the punch that Scream did in terms of classic horror scares, they saved their best scare for the end. It was enough to unleash a healthy shriek from my 12-year-old self.
In an age when we have seen it all, I hope that the jump scare makes a solid comeback and that filmmakers find a way to freshen it up without losing the adrenaline rush that comes with it. Some movies are an emotional journey. Others are a ride. Those that are a ride use jump scares to let us know that we’re heading downhill but that we’ll come out of it all right, even if the heroes onscreen don’t.
Which movies have made you scream or jump in your seat? Leave your answers in the comments below!